During the English middle ages law often took on the form of an ordeal. An ordeal is a method of trial inwhich the accused was given a physical test that could only be met successfully if he or she was “innocent”in the eyes of God. I will discuss specifically three types of ordeals that were commonly used.
I — Ordeal of White Hot IronThis ordeal was used to test a person’s honesty. If a person was accused of lying to an officialpertaining to a crime supposedly committed, then the individual would be given a choice. If the accusedheld the white hot iron and did not get burned by it then he was innocent. If the accused held the iron andwas burned then he was considered to be guilty and then punished according to the law.
The accusedwould also be held as guilty if he chose not to undertake the ordeal at all. II — Ordeal of FireThis ordeal was the only ordeal administered to women accused of cheating on their husbands. The suspected woman, dressed in white cloth, was made to walk through fire. If the clothing singed orturned black, then she was guilty and faced punishment. III — Trial by CombatOf all medieval ordeals, this one may be considered the most fatal.
To settle a dispute in thismanner the plaintiff and the defendant would agree to wage a combat with each other until the death. Armor, if allowed would be scanty and only a sword or dagger would be used. Often the event would beconducted in a public meeting place such as the town square. This led to the entertainment aspect of theordeal. The townsfolk would often demand one arm tied behind the back or have weights tied around eachleg to contribute to the fun of spectatorship.
While these methods of trial may seem unjust or even cruel by today’s standard they were widelyaccepted by the people on the basis on religious beliefs that God would reign as the supreme judge over thematter. However, rarely did one ever walk away from ordeal by white hot iron with an unblemished hand. And very few times did the “David” slay the “Goliath” in trial by combat. Yet the townsfolk continued tosupport these events, even after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 outlawed clerics to take part in thetrials. The ordeals lasted unofficially until the early nineteenth century.